(MintPress) – The slow but steady onslaught of legislation limiting constitutionally protected free speech has continued unabated through much of 2012 as much of the House Resolution (HR) 347, the National Defense Authorization Act and other bills could slash citizens’ protected right to free speech.
Although few concrete crackdowns have taken place, the legislative onslaught has drawn condemnation from international civil liberties organizations, including, most notably, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE decried the police use of “excessive force and undue restrictions on peaceful assembly” in a report last month, a sentiment echoed by the activist community in the U.S.
In the wake of the Occupy movement, the report released last month specifically criticizes mass arrests, kettling, arrests of journalists, camp evictions and permit requirements in the U.S.
HR 347, an assault on civil liberties
The “Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011″ effectively regulates protest in areas where Secret Service are present, meaning peaceful protests protected by the First Amendment could be silenced at events where the president or members of the Secret Service are present.
The updated version passed in a lopsided vote 399-3 in the House of Representatives with little opposition to the bill. Ron Paul (R-Texas) was among three Republican lawmakers to vote no on the bill. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), one of the three dissenters, mockingly called the bill, the “First Amendment Rights Eradication Act.” President Obama signed the bill into law in February.
The bill also extends to events ambiguously deemed “a special event of national significance,” including events where the speaker of the House of Representatives, vice president of the United States and the president of the Senate are present.
“What HR 347 did was revise a criminal statute that was already on the books which deals with trespass and similar activities around zones that are protected by Secret Service.” said Gabe Rottman, Legislative Counsel for the ACLU, in a recent MintPress statement.
“For instance, it covers trespass on White House grounds, blocking the entrance or exit to a special security event and disrupting government activity,” added Rottman.
Special security zones can be arbitrary elected by authorities, unannounced — creating a situation where a protester can be arrested for demonstrating inside an unmarked security area. This expands security zones as defined by the Clinton administration in 1998. Clinton established National Special Security Events (NSSE) with Presidential Decision Directive 62. This grants broad powers to Secret Service and police forces to cordon off broad swaths of territory in and around high level events without visible demarcation.
Anyone caught protesting or displaying “disruptive behavior” is subject to arrest and imprisonment up to one year. Charges increase should weapons be found on a suspect’s person.
Although there have been no known prosecutions using this law, the fear is that the ambiguous wording of “disruptive behavior” could lead to a liberal crackdowns by police, arresting protesters and effectively silencing non-violent, public dissent.
“It could chill protest actions. To the extent that it starts to be used widely, there will be greater concern and appetite to oppose the law,” added Rottman.
Activists and some legal experts note that although there have not been any concrete crackdowns on free speech, citizens should already be alarmed.
“It seems to be a trend that vague or overly broad language could be fairly described as being purposefully adopted allowing ‘wiggle room’ for Federal authorities to potentially abuse civil and human rights under the color of authority,” writes Gene Howington, a guest writer on Jonathan Turley’s legal blog.
At the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit and other events — including the Democratic National Convention, the Republican National Convention and debates during the presidential primaries — protesters were pushed to the outskirts of event areas, beyond the purview of the media, at times corralled into small areas, a police tactic commonly called “kettling.”
For example, at the Chicago NATO summit in July, protesters were given a permit to protest at McCormick Place, miles away from the actual summit where conference attendees could see the demonstrations.
Although the more than 10,000 protesters were allowed brief times in which to march through the streets of Chicago, many from Occupy groups and anti-globalization organizations complained that their non-violent demonstrations were unnecessarily stifled.
Based on the passage of HR 347 and other police crackdowns, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe recommended that the U.S. “ensure the right to free assembly, including by facilitating protest camps and marches as much as possible, limiting police use of force, promptly investigating police misconduct, and not dispersing assemblies merely for lack of permits,” in a report released last month.
The U.S. remains far removed from the dystopic visions of Ray Bradbury, George Orwell and other creative novelists. However, the alarms have already been sounded in the activist community and among international civil rights organizations.
The NDAA and FBI crackdowns
This continues a silent, troubling trend under that Obama administration in which Congress has eroded free speech with legislation like the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
The Homeland Battlefield provision of the NDAA has been challenged by Chris Hedges and a bevy of academics, activists and journalists in a tit-for-tat game of lawsuits against the Obama administration.
Although the Obama administration has assured journalists that they would be able to conduct interviews with known enemy combatants, an essential function of the free press, the wording remains such that citizens can be arbitrarily arrested without due process of law.
In the worst manifestation of the NDAA, a journalist who has conducted an interview with a terrorist could be sent to a penal colony, like Guantanamo, and tried for having “substantial contacts with a foreign terrorist organization” by a military tribunal.
“I think the Obama administration has continued most of Bush’s policies. In terms of civil liberties, it has become much worse with the NDAA,” said Tom Burke, an activist, in a recent MintPress statement.
Burke was among 70 activists raided by the FBI in 2010 for activism allegedly connecting him to “foreign terrorist organizations (FTO).” The ongoing investigation against him has taken the form of secret trials and hearings where activists who have simply traveled to Israel and Colombia are illegitimately detained, arrested and even imprisoned for what may be unpopular or controversial beliefs.